Lucknow is a beautiful city.
That’s what my friends from Lucknow would always say. For many years, I experienced Lucknow and its famed culture through their eyes and stories about their city. I improved my spoken Hindi (or Hindustani as they preferred to call it) by speaking the language with them, and over the years came to speak the language like a native of Lucknow. At least that’s what my friends would say. But I never managed a visit a visit to Lucknow in all these years. Till last month, that is. 🙂
When I got off the overnight train that brought me to Lucknow from Varanasi at 7.00 am that October morning, I didn’t feel like I was in a strange place. Instead, I felt like I was in a familiar place, with the stunning red and white Char Bagh station welcoming me like an old, old friend.
Since I had only one day in Lucknow, I packed in as much as I could by playing tourist and visiting some of its more famous sights. My tour of Lucknow began with the auto ride itself from Char Bagh station to my hosts’ (parents of my friends, Ambika and Anuja) place. The auto driver enthusiastically pointed out the important landmarks like the Sankatmochan Temple, the Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha, Parivartan Chowk, Hazratganj, Lucknow University… on our way to my hosts’ place. My first impression of Lucknow was that of a city without multi-storied buildings, wide roads, lots of greenery, beautiful houses, and orderly traffic, though my opinion on the last one changed during the course of the day !
I had made prior arrangements for a vehicle and a guide to “see” Lucknow, and we had pre-decided on a list of 6 must visit places to see. The first on that list was the Asafi Imambara, or the Bada Imambara. This is a Shia shrine complex that includes a mosque, a baoli (step-well), and a bhul bhulaiya (labyrinth).
The Bada Imambara was built in 1783, a year of famine and ruin in the region. The ruling Nawab at that time, Asaf-ud-Daula, hit upon the idea of building the Imambara as a means of providing employment to his people. The famine continued for 10 years and the building also took that long to be built.
Asaf-ud-Daula is buried in the main hall of the Bada Imambara, a hall with many remarkable features. The main hall is a large vaulted central chamber, over a 100 feet long and nearly 50 ft high and has no beams to support the ceiling. It is difficult to put into words the feeling of being in a vast, enclosed, yet unhindered, space stretching out in front of you. The Bada Imambara is considered to be among the largest such arched constructions in the world.
The upper floors of the Imambara contain an intricate 3-D labyrinth of interconnecting passages, balconies, and reportedly 489 doorways. The location of the bhul bhulaiya inside the Imambara came as a surprise for me. I had expected the labyrinth to be a fun thing, like a garden and not within a building. The guide mentioned that the labyrinth was not planned; it was the unintentional outcome of a way to support the weight of the building, which was constructed on marshy land. Probably the only existing maze in India, the bhul bhulaiya in the Bada Imambara is the main attraction for most tourists coming here. I saw many tourists rushing up to see the labyrinth, without even giving a cursory glance to the grand interiors of the Imambara.
The roof of the Bada Imambara offers some great views of the city and one can see many other landmarks of Lucknow from there — Rumi Darwaza, the Safed Masjid, Ghantaghar, and the dome of Chhota Imambara. The view of the Asafi mosque, which is located within the Bada Imambara complex, from the rooftop is stunning.
The baoli in the Imambara complex was built over a reservoir to initially store water for construction work. Later a guest-house was constructed over the baoli to house the Nawab’s visitors. The baoli also served as a place for surveillance, where soldiers, located in the lower recesses of the baoli would keep a track of the comings and goings of visitors from their reflections on the waters of the well. The baoli is so cunningly designed that the visitors would not know that they were being watched.
After the visit to the Bada Imambara, it was a short drive through the spectacular Rumi Darwaza to see the Hussainabad Imambara, which is popularly known as the Chhota Imambara. The 60 ft tall Rumi Darwaza is also known as the Turkish Gate as it has been modelled on the Bab-i-Humayun in Istanbul.
It was through this gate that the victorious British troops entered Lucknow city after successfully breaking the Siege of Lucknow in 1857 arising from India’s first war of independence.
The Chhota Imambara can be described in just one word — gorgeous. Built in 1838 by Nawab Mohammad Ali Shah, this Imambara looks like it is spun of white lace, and capped with a golden bronze dome and several turrets and minarets. This lacy effect is due to the extensive calligraphy on the outer walls of the Chhota Imambara. Compared to the Bada Imambara, the Chhota Imambara is more ornate in design and has its interiors filled with exquisite chandeliers from Belgium, large gilt-edged mirrors, and a silver minbar, among others. The Chhota Imambara complex has a shahi hamam or a royal bath, a mosque, and tombs of Nawab Mohammad Ali Shah and his family members.
The Residency is the next on my list of places to visit. My recollection of the place from school history lessons did not prepare me for what I saw — ruins, upon ruins of red brick structures, a graveyard tucked away in one corner of the grounds, extensive green lawns and trees, and desolation. Desolation everywhere, and couples hiding in every possible place, including tombstones.
The Residency is a group of buildings that was built in 1800 by the then Nawab of Awadh, Saadat Ali Khan, for the British Resident General, who was the British Empire’s representative in the court of the Nawab. The buildings comprised living quarters, kitchens, stables, a mosque, a church, granary, etc. The Residency came under siege in 1857 during India’s first war of independence or if one is looking at the incident from the British point of view, the Sepoy Mutiny or Seige of Lucknow or the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
But whosoever’s point of view, Indian or British, the fact remains that there was a bitter battle during the Siege: about 2,000 Britishers died (including soldiers and their families). The Siege was successfully overcome by the British, and India had to wait for another 90 years for Independence. The Siege left the Residency in ruins and one can still see scars made by cannons on the walls today.
A small museum within the Residency records the history of the Seige of Lucknow as well as photographs of the various Nawabs of Lucknow. A quick visit there and I am off to see the graveyard. A board outside mentions that the “enormous number of casualties during the siege forced the bodies to be dumped into the ground near the church after the nightfall often with no burial service other than a brief prayer.”
A walk through the graves reveals graves of women, children and babies even. It is a chilling reminder that whatever the reasons for violence, the innocent are also affected. Always affected. Though it is a warm October day, l feel a chill in the cemetery. A quick prayer at what was supposed to be St. Mary’s Church, and I leave.
The Dilkusha Palace is the next place I head to. Situated on the banks of the river Gomti, this was developed as a hunting lodge around 1800 by Saadat Ali Khan and the then British resident, George Ouseley. Later on, this place was also used as a summer resort. Built in the English Baroque style, it is completely in ruins today with only the pediment, columns and some walls standing today as a reminder of a glorious past. Set in very picturesque surroundings, I was surprised to find that I was the only tourist there. The guide remarked that it was not a very popular place, though the evenings saw locals coming for a stroll. Sometimes, cultural programmes were held in the premises, which brought in crowds. It wasn’t too difficult to imagine the dramatic red ruins all lit up and serving as a perfect backdrop for theatre or even a dance or music performance.
Out next, and last, halt is the La Martiniere School for Boys. Normally, the school is not open for visitors, but since it was a Sunday one could at least see the school building. The school interiors, however, remained out-of-bounds. The La Martiniere School was founded by a French adventurer, Claude Martin, in 1845. The school is set in a 200-acre campus on the banks of the river Gomti. Praveen, the guide, has figured out that I love architecture and announces rather smugly that I am in for a treat. I didn’t understand what he meant till I actually saw the school.
The school building has been built in a mixture of architectural styles and can, therefore, not be classified under any one style. You name the style, the school has it all — Moorish, Baroque, Classical, Gothic, Georgian, Greek, Mughal… It took me a while to recover from this bizarre and eccentric mixture of styles. The interiors were also supposed to contain design elements and styles from all over. Unfortunately, I could not see it. 😦
After the “thank you” and “goodbye” to my guide, I returned to my hosts’ place at around 4 pm. A late lunch and a nap later, I was all set to experience Lucknow again, but this time with my gracious hosts. It wasn’t touristy stuff, just normal stuff—some shopping for chikan at a very nice place called Nazrana in the Hazratganj area, followed by a visit to their family friend’s place to bless a new-born baby and have some divine laddoos, and then a drive around Lucknow in the evening. Dinner was at a club in the Cantonment area and over kababs and some more kababs, we chatted, discussed and gossiped about Lucknow and its famed adakari and nazaakat. My host even demonstrated how one should swear in true Lucknawi style !
It was a super contented me who went to bed that night, happy that I had finally visited Lucknow after nearly 23 years of only hearing about it. When I spoke to Ambika that night, she was disappointed that I had not visited the old city or had Lucknawi chaat.
I replied, “If I do everything in one trip, what will be the incentive for me to come back to Lucknow again?” ;-).